Every college athlete dreams of becoming a national champion. Last weekend, fourth-year Khia Kurtenbach made her dream come true when she became the 2017 NCAA Division III Cross Country National Champion, only the second runner at UChicago to do so. Beating the other 278 runners, Kurtenbach crossed the finish line in 20 minutes and 39 seconds, an impressive six seconds before the runner-up.
Kurtenbach began running track her senior year of high school after running casually with her mother and completing a half-marathon that year. Although she had committed to swimming at UChicago, she had fallen in love with track, so she joined the track team in the spring. “I don’t miss swimming, but the people on the swim team are awesome, so I do miss practicing with them,” Kurtenbach said. “Now, I can’t imagine not being a runner. I go totally crazy if I don’t run for a few days. I’m also super talkative and I can talk to my friends while we run during track practice, which was much harder to do swimming.”
In love with the sport, Kurtenbach runs almost every day of the week for a total of about 50 miles, and aqua jogs about four times a week. Although the occasional lone long-run can be nice, the team is very close, according to Kurtenbach. “My teammates are my friends, but they’re also my family,” Kurtenbach said. “UC XC does an amazing job of cheering each other on while running but also at supporting each other in life. There have been times where I’ve been really stressed about school, and one of my teammates is always down to listen to a rant while we run. We get $1 milkshakes on Wednesday nights, which I think have been the key to my athletic success, because calcium is key for preventing stress fractures.”
Kurtenbach has had three rounds of stress fractures, but quitting never crossed her mind. When she wasn’t able to run, her friends kept her company in the pool or on the bike, and she focused more on working in the lab or on exploring Chicago. A stress fracture last spring kept her from running until mid-June after six weeks off. She built up from running just two miles a week in June to 50 miles a week in fall. “There have been days where running has really sucked, and my teammates have been incredibly supportive. They’re all inspiring, hard-working athletes and students. The best part about last weekend was that I could make my teammates and coaches proud. I wanted to get the win to make them happy more than anything.”
Along with her team, Kurtenbach has also felt inspired by former UChicago athlete Michelle Dobbs, who won the indoor 800-meter national championship in track two years ago. Dobbs dealt with many injuries, but never let that stop her. Kurtenbach also considers her best friend, Minnie, a huge inspiration, who aqua jogged with her when she was injured. “Minnie also switched to running from another sport, so she and I somewhat figured out the running thing together,” Kurtenbach said. The national championship banners in Ratner have also motivated Kurtenbach, who will now be able see one with her own name. “Crossing the finish line was unreal,” she said. “I think I started crying happy tears a little bit before I actually finished. The minutes after the race are kind of a blur, but I remember seeing my mom pretty quickly and she was also happy crying, which was incredible.”